Pro-Russian separatists shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets in the same eastern region where Malaysian Air Flight MH17 was destroyed, the government said.
Rebels downed two Su-25s today over the village of Dmytrivka in the Donetsk region, a Defense Ministry spokesman, Oleksiy Dmytrashkovsky, said by phone. Another ministry spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters in Kiev the planes were at an altitude of 5,200 meters (17,000 feet) when they were brought down by a “powerful” anti-aircraft missile. The pilots ejected and their whereabouts are unknown, the ministry said on Facebook.
The incident comes nearly a week after MH17 was hit by a missile the U.S. says was probably fired from a Russian-supplied launcher. If verified, it raises the question of whether President Vladimir Putin’s military is still giving the rebels access to weapons capable of downing fighters. Lysenko said the jets may have been downed from Russian territory, an allegation Ukraine’s government has made before when a plane was targeted.
“This shows the rebels have a pretty sophisticated anti-aircraft capacity,” Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said by phone. “You need more than a bazooka to take down a fighter. And it’s one more piece of evidence on the MH17 shoot-down.”
Aircraft operating at 5,200 meters are generally beyond the range of shoulder-fired weapons, which can typically engage targets flying up to about 10,000 feet, according to Doug Richardson, missiles and rockets editor at IHS Jane’s.
The attacks bring the number of Ukrainian aircraft destroyed by rebels to at least 16 during the conflict, according to a count earlier this week by Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman.
Three days before MH17 crashed on July 17, insurgents shot down an An-26 military transport plane in eastern Ukraine at 6,500 meters, the Defense Ministry said. The attacks have killed at least 60 people.
The Su-25 is an armored aircraft armed with a twin barrel 30-millimeter gun that can carry air-to-ground weapons designed for destroying targets in all weather conditions day or night, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
The Micex Index of Russian stocks erased gains after news the fighters were shot down, falling 0.6 percent in Moscow.
Meanwhile, two planes carrying bodies from Flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands from eastern Ukraine today for identification, as questions were raised over whether all the victims’ remains had been recovered. The Netherlands, which lost 193 of the 298 people who died in the July 17 downing of the Boeing Co. 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, held a day of mourning.
Forty bodies were flown from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, to Eindhoven in the Netherlands in two military planes -- one Dutch and one Australian. The coffins were met at Eindhoven airport by King Willem Alexander, Queen Maxima and Prime Minister Mark Rutte and loaded into hearses by servicemen.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country lost 27 people, said officials were unsure how many bodies had been recovered from the site near Grabovo, less than 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Russia’s border, and sent to Kharkiv by train.
“My fear is that unless we do more, unless we prepare for further possible measures, some will never come home,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra. “That would be completely unacceptable for bereaved families.”
While the rebels said more than 260 bodies were on the train to Kharkiv, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dutch experts said they’d only inspected 200 bodies.
The Netherlands, Australia and Ukraine are working on a United Nations resolution calling for a UN mission to police the crash site, the Dutch ANP newswire reported. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Abbott offered to send guards to the site, according to a statement on the president’s website.
Data from the cockpit voice recorder from the Malaysian plane have been downloaded by the U.K.’s Air Accident Investigation Branch and must now be analyzed, the Dutch Safety Board said in a statement. “No evidence or indications of manipulation of the cockpit voice recorder was found,” it said. Examination of the flight data recorder will start tomorrow.
International anger has grown in the aftermath of the downing of Flight 17. European Union states threatened yesterday to widen sanctions against Russia.
“This shoot-down shows the separatists are pressing ahead even as the Ukrainian army advances,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said by phone today. “The rebels are clearly determined to resist and Russia is determined to help them.”
U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday satellite images and other evidence indicate the rebels attacked the jet with a surface-to-air missile from their territory.
Photographs of debris from the downed Malaysian jet show what seem to be telltale holes left by a missile strike, defense experts said. One image of a piece of fuselage that appears to come from the cockpit suggests damage from a ground-fired warhead.
“The punctures seen in the photograph are relatively uniform in size,” said Reed Foster, manager of military capabilities at IHS Jane’s. “This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation-type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”
The U.S. has ruled out involvement by Ukraine’s military -- a scenario suggested by Russia -- because its missiles weren’t within range of the plane, according to three American intelligence officials who briefed reporters yesterday on the condition of anonymity. While stopping short of claiming direct involvement by Russia, none of the officials ruled it out.
As fighting continued, three civilians died and 10 were wounded in Luhansk, according to a statement on the city council’s website.
EU governments will move toward stiffer sanctions, possibly including so-called level-three measures aimed at entire industries, if Putin refuses to abide by a UN resolution calling for an international probe into the disaster and unimpeded access to the crash site.
“Putin will probably dodge the EU’s bullet for some weeks,” Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at Eurasia Group in New York, wrote in a note. “Opponents of harsh measures in the EU will find their argument increasingly unsustainable. Putin will before long very probably face coordinated U.S. and EU level-three measures -- most likely in September.”